by Julie Ann Madden
“It’s hard to understand,” cried Santa Claus in an early Monday morning phone interview. “It’s overwhelming. It’s kind of a heart-breaking place to be.”
For a man who devotes his whole life to bringing joy to children around the world Christmas morning, the killing of 20 children, ages 6 and 7, and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Friday morning, is just hard to fathom.
“I was kind of caught off guard,” he said, explaining since the massacre, children have not only been bringing their wish lists to him but asking questions. “I get little kids asking me questions (I don’t have an answer for).”
Prior to this tragedy, ministers have passed by letting him know they often dealt with hard questions from little ones who think they are God, and in children’s eyes, Santa is next to God.
This professional Santa Claus, Curt Winquist from rural Alcester, S.D., is on assignment for the real Santa Claus who is busy filling his sleigh at the North Pole. He is stationed in a mall in Waterbury, Conn., just 20 miles away from Newtown.
“We’re so close people come to this mall from Newtown,” he said, adding it’s the second year he’s been assigned to this mall.
“The children tell me things they won’t tell others,” said Santa, adding he’s not ready to talk about children’s comments and concerns he’s received since Friday.
“It was a good time before Friday,” he said, adding topping children’s lists were “anything electronic.”
A unique request this year is boys asking for Easy Bake Ovens. He’s had 11 boys request this toy and about half have asked for the gender-specific “blue-colored” ovens — not the traditional pink ones.
Children are also occasionally asking for Legos, said Santa. “Dollies are the big things for girls.”
A cute story that brought a jolly chuckle from Santa was a 2 1/2-year-old boy who asked for “two shoes for Christmas.” When Santa asked him if he wanted a “pair of shoes,” the boy made it clear he didn’t want a pair, he wanted “one shoe for each foot.” Apparently, the tot didn’t understand what a “pair” was.
Before Friday, one of the hardest requests came from a 3 1/2-year-old boy. Wrenching sobs came through the 1,545-mile phone line as Santa told The Akron Hometowner the boy said, “My daddy died in the war this year. Can I get him back for Christmas?”
“It’s definitely been harder since Friday,” said Winquist, who works three three-hour shifts with an hour off in-between each shift every day from Nov. 17 to 5 p.m., Dec. 24. “Not with all kids though as not all know (about the Newtown shootings).”
Waterbury has a population of 110,000, said Santa and is very multi-cultured. Restaurant menus have three languages: Albanian, Spanish and English. An eight-year-old who sat on Santa’s lap was fluent in three languages.
Santa has two or three elves who help with the children, lifting them on and off his lap, and a security guard to escort him to and from the mall.
“I’ve had to learn how to hold the children to save my shins,” said Santa, chuckling, it’s sort of like working with the young dairy calves back home.
The setting in the mall where he sits has gates to control the traffic — sort of like cattle chutes, he added.
“Some children can be in line two to two-and-one-half hours waiting to see me,” said Santa. “Some just want to visit, and others also want their pictures taken with me.”
The youngest child he’s held was just six days old and the oldest was a spry 94-year-old Puerto Rican woman who has been snuggling on Santa’s lap every year since she was a tot.
It doesn’t matter what age, sex, ethnicity or race — Santa is there to brighten their day.
To communicate with some of the older kids who have their caps sideways and wear baggy clothes, he learned their “good” slang.
“They don’t respond to ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays,’ but a ‘Yo-Low’ brings the same excitement to their faces when I call out to them as my “ho-ho-hos” do the tots,” explained Santa.
“You’re never too old to learn,” said Santa, adding sometimes schools bring in whole classes. Recently, I had two Kindergarten classes with 30 students each. Every child had his picture taken with me.
Early in his first shift of the day, Santa visits with some special children, like the 9-year-old girl suffering with leukemia. She had to leave her surgical mask on for the photo in hopes she wouldn’t catch any germs but it was so important for her to visit Santa this year.
He’s also had parents bring children “too sick to be in school” or “kept out of school because of head lice” at these times.
Santa was missing Mrs. Claus who stayed back on the farm. He told The Akron Hometowner that women have an attitude out here — much more short-tempered than Midwestern women.
For instance, after having breakfast at IHop with children, he was handed a letter from a mother scolding him for not saying “hello” to all the children when he arrived. Other times, women with their children above him on the second level of the mall will shout at him to pay attention to their children while he is visiting with a child on his lap.
“It’s tough,” said Santa. “It’s definitely different here.”
“Children are so honest,” he said. “I learn so much about their families in that short time they are on my lap.”
“There are way more problems out there than we think,” said Santa, “and it’s kind of sad.”
“I still enjoy it — even after Friday,” said Santa. “If you can give comfort to a child –”
After a pause, he said, “I was meant to be here. I didn’t have to be assigned to this mall.”